The character of Cyborg has become a major piece of DC Entertainment’s plans for silver screen domination, but he hasn’t yet left a major mark on DC Comics’ publishing line. With this week’s “Cyborg: Rebirth” #1, John Semper hopes to change that.
The writer may be largely new to comics scripting, but he shouldn’t be new to most superhero comic fans. In the ’90s, Semper served as Producer and Story Editor on Fox’s fan-favorite “Spider-Man: The Animated Series,” providing the core creative direction for the show during its run. He’s also contributed scripts to superhero fare like “Static Shock” (where he was also Story Editor) and “The Incredible Hulk,” amongst many other animated series.
But his incoming DC “Cyborg” series is a new challenge for Semper in more ways than one. Though the character has been a fixture in DC Comics since he was introduced by creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez in the classic “New Teen Titans” series of the ’80s, Victor Stone has never proven a bankable solo star. Though DC Entertainment President Geoff Johns elevated Cyborg to be a founding member of the Justice League with the launch of 2011’s New 52, in the eyes of many longtime DC fans, the hero remains secondary piece of the DC puzzle. His latest solo series was met with a tepid response (like most of the recent “DC You” initiative), and with DC Entertainment’s plan to make him a massive part of their film universe, the pressure to make the character connect with fans couldn’t be bigger.
But as Semper tells it, he wouldn’t have it any other way. Below, the writer explains to CBR why he believes Cyborg has failed to strike a major chord with readers up until now, and how he’s working to define the hero’s personality for the first time. plus, Semper gives us a few clues about the surprises he hopes will carry the audience from the “Rebirth” one-shot and into a long run on the ongoing series.
CBR News: John, tell me a bit about your coming to comics in general. You’ve done so much film and animated work, the latter heavy on superhero stories, but there are a lot of differences in pacing and structure and even content with the comics form. Has it been freeing to work in this medium?
John Semper: Yes, it has been a freeing experience – more so I think because of the nature of the business. In television in general, you are basically an employee of the network, and the network has a lot of say. They have a lot of power over you. You get used to that. It’s not something I’ve ever rankled at. There’s a myth about “Spider-Man: The Animated Series” that we had lots of censorship. It’s totally incorrect. We did not. But there is a certain amount of control that a network has over you.
In this process, I find that storywise I have much more freedom. It’s a lot more fun to interact with my editors at DC. And then DC did me the great favor of moving all the way from New York to five minutes away from where I live in Burbank. So if I’m having any kind of problem or an issue, I can call those guys up, and five minutes later, we can sit down at a conference table and hash it all out. There’s a lot of creative freedom.
And structurally, it’s different. Animation is film, and I started out my career as a film editor. In fact, I’m still in the Editor’s Guild. So understanding the language of film is something I’ve done for a long time. Understanding the language of comic books is a little bit different, and it takes a little adjusting. It’s not hard, but it is different. Sometimes you do find yourself putting together a Chinese puzzle trying to get all the story into 20 pages and make the panels work with one another and all of that. But it’s all part of the same game, which is storytelling. And that’s what I’ve been doing for over three decades. This is a lot of fun for me, really. I almost sort of feel like it’s criminal. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop where someone takes it all away from me because so far it’s been a tremendous amount of fun.
Let’s talk about Cyborg’s character as part of the DCU right now on and off the page. Since the birth of the New 52, Geoff Johns elevated him to a founding member of the Justice League, and everyone knows the character is set to be a big part of the DC film universe. When you look at his status, what do you focus on first in your book? Is it just getting the character right, or do you think about that spotlight that’s surrounding the character now?
Well, first of all I like the spotlight. It’s something I’m used to, and it’s the only place I want to be. So I don’t feel any pressure because I’ve been here before. When I did “Spider-Man,” it was the most important thing in the Marvel universe. Marvel was going bankrupt, and all of their fortunes were resting on my Spider-Man show because they owned it. They didn’t really own the X-Men show that Saban was doing, but they owned the Spider-Man show, and it was a big deal. There was a huge amount of pressure on me there, and so this is something I’m used to, and I like it. I like it because no matter what you do, people are going to pay attention. So if you do a really good job, they’ll pay attention, and if you do a really lousy job, you’re certainly going to hear about it. But it’s better than doing something that nobody’s paying attention to.
It is a big task to redefine this character. I think that he’s certainly been given a very high profile. I’m not 100% sure that the fans have really embraced the character as fully as I would like them to or as DC would like them to. Though I have to speak for myself there, because I really can’t speak for DC. But what I’ve been given the opportunity to do is present to audiences the reason why they should care about this character who’s going to be in front of them in a number of different ways in the near future. So I love that challenge. Basically what I’m doing is creating a personality that hopefully people will get excited about and will come to love. And I think there’s an awful lot going on with this character that people should be paying attention to. I feel like we’re a little bit of the underdog, and I like that too. When you start being the underdog, then everything you accomplish is exciting. I think people are going to be very surprised by this comic book. They’re not expecting it, and I like that. I think there are going to be a lot of surprises.
The pitch of the “Rebirth” initiative in general is that a lot of the characters are seeing elements of their comic book pasts brought back into the modern DCU. But this version of Cyborg has very little past to tap into in that sense. We know about the very tense relationship with his father, but that’s most of his story to this point. What’s your approach in presenting an iconic take on Cyborg considering this kind of continuity paradox? Are you going to try and work in elements of his past like the Titans team where the character originated?
I don’t know that I’m necessarily all that wedded to what’s come before in terms of the pre-New 52 stories. My overall feeling about Victor, quite frankly, is that he’s never really, really, really been defined as a personality. That’s just my feeling. When I came into it, I was looking for a sense of who this character was, and I don’t think I ever found it. And that’s what made this character interesting to me because he was kind of a tabula rasa – a blank slate. I could maybe start to think about building a character and a personality from the ground up.
In terms of the whole idea of “Rebirth,” I really do feel that what’s going to happen and what I’m trying to make happen is that we’re going to bring in a lot of new readers who are maybe not at all familiar with the current incarnation of the character. Maybe they’re not even familiar with the old version of the character. So this is an opportunity to build something totally new with them.
And somebody was commenting recently on a Facebook post about Cyborg, and they didn’t realized I was reading that thread because I was kind of lurking. But they said that he’s sometimes been reduced to being a piece of furniture. And while I don’t fully agree with that, I understand the feeling. I don’t know that there’s ever been an opportunity for the reader to completely grasp who this character is and what motivates him – or even the characters around him. And I don’t know quite why that happened or how that happened, but this is finally the chance for this character to be defined, for his relationships to be clarified, for his motivation to be clarified. This is it. And that was made clear to me. Geoff Johns told me that he really wants me to take charge of this and make this happen. So that’s my mandate here.
To date, the relationship with Victor’s father has been the pivot point for so many of his modern stories. What does that offer you in your journey to defining him?
Well, it’s a starting point. It can’t be the only thing that defines him, and I think the problem up to now is that it’s been kind of the only thing about him. How many of us want to be defined solely by our relationship with our parents? Especially when we’re all grown up. I think one of the things that was missing in Victor’s life was who he is without the relationship with his father.
Years ago when “Star Trek: The Next Generation” began, I read the series bible because I was toying with the idea of maybe trying to write for it. But all that there was about Picard was this surface stuff. “He likes his tea Earl Grey.” [Laughs] I mean, what does that even do for you? That gives you nothing in terms of creating stories. It tells you nothing about the character. And consequently, the first season of that series is generally considered to be awful. And I think that when a character is defined only by a few small characteristics or even one major characteristic, it becomes problematic. It makes the character two-dimensional. I think Victor’s relationship with his father is very important, but I don’t think it was motivated very well. I didn’t understand the motivation for any of it – why his father was behaving the way he was or why Victor was behaving the way he was. So the question I ask myself is, “Where does this all come from?” or “How did this get started?” And that’s what you’ll find out in my stories. You’ll understand better what’s going on between the two of them.
But the other thing is, how many of us are still living with our parents when we’re in our early 20s? I think Victor’s personality development – with regard to his relationship to the reader – has been hampered by him being this guy who hasn’t left home. What I’m going to do with this character is show you what he’s like when he’s out from under the wing of his father. You’re going to get a better idea of who he is as a grown adult living on his own and having his own relationships and having situations occur to him not motivated by dad. So it’s a double-edged sword, the whole relationship with this father. But obviously it plays a part in his personality.
On the big genre side of things, one necessity of any solo superhero is a set of antagonists that help define him. I know the solicitations have teased you using some existing villains like Kilg%re, but how are you approaching the task of defining that half of the book? Have you thought about how to create an arch-nemesis for Cyborg?
Absolutely. In fact, that’s a conversation I just had four weeks ago over at DC. I fully intend to create a rogue’s gallery for as long as I’m on this title. I think it’s very important. And again, all of these things emanate from the personality of the hero himself. Because Victor hasn’t had a fully developed personality – at least not in my opinion – I think it’s been hard for writers to come up with villains that really resonate. So by defining his personality, I intend to also create some villains like the first one you’ll see at the end of the very first issue. This villain hits directly at the heart of who Cyborg is and even his relationship with his father, and that’s what makes the villain frightening and interesting and memorable. So I want to create a whole pantheon of new villains for this character.
And I’d say for anyone who’s ever been remotely interesting in Cyborg, this is the run where you really do have to pay attention. I’m building a world around this character, and I think it’s going to stick. I’m very happy with the results we’ve been getting so far in terms of the artwork and marrying the artwork to my scripts. So I would encourage everybody to pay close attention, because I think what we’re doing with the character in this run is going to last for a very long time – long past my time on the book.
“Cyborg: Rebirth” #1 is on sale today from DC Comics.
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